The Best Church For American Christianity In Exile
We live in a time of exile. At least those of us do who hold to traditional Christian beliefs. The strident rhetoric of scientism has made belief in the supernatural look ridiculous. The Pill, no-fault divorce, and now gay marriage have made traditional sexual ethics look outmoded at best and hateful at worst. The Western public square is no longer a place where Christians feel they belong with any degree of comfort.
For Christians in the United States, this is particularly disorienting. In Europe, Christianity was pushed to the margins over a couple of centuries—the tide of faith retreated “with tremulous cadence slow.” In America, the process seems to be happening much more rapidly.
It is also being driven by issues that few predicted would have such cultural force. It is surely an irony as unexpected as it is unwelcome that sex—that most private and intimate act—has become the most pressing public policy issue today. (Who could have imagined that policies concerning contraception and laws allowing same-sex marriage would present the most serious challenges to religious freedom?) We are indeed set for exile, though not an exile which pushes us to the geographical margins. It’s an exile to cultural irrelevance.
Trueman says Evangelicalism is especially vulnerable here, because it has so much emotionally invested in Americanism. Catholicism too is vulnerable, he contends, because it has become so embedded in the American mainstream that many Catholics will not be able easily to deal with life as marginalized outsiders, misunderstood and disliked by most. In the essay I’ve linked to, Trueman, a Reformed theologian, makes a case that historical Reformed Christianity offers the best choice for American Christians to live out Christianity in a condition of exile. Excerpt:
It possesses the intellectual rigor necessary for teaching and defending the faith in a hostile environment. It has a strong tradition of reflecting in depth upon the difference between that which is essential and that which, though good, is inessential and thus dispensable. It has a historical identity rooted in the wider theological teachings of the Church. It has deep resources for thinking clearly about the relationship of Church and state.
It’s not surprising that Reformed Christianity equips us well for exile, because it was itself forged in a time of exile, often by men who were literal exiles. Indeed, the most famous Reformed theologian of them all, John Calvin, was a Frenchman who found fame and influence as a pastor outside his homeland, in the city of Geneva. The Pilgrim fathers of New England knew the realities of exile, and the conditions that it imposed upon the people, only too well. Winthrop’s famous comment about being a city on a hill was not a statement of messianic destiny but a reminder to the colonists of the fact that their lives as exiles were to be lived out in the glare of hostile scrutiny. Exile demanded they have a clear and godly identity.
I can’t barely begin to lay out the complexities of Trueman’s case, so I hope you will read the whole thing. It provides a good launchpad for what I hope will be a fruitful discussion in the comments section.
What I would like for us to focus on is the central question of Trueman’s essay: Which form of contemporary Christianity is best suited to living out the time of exile that is fast approaching American Christians?
I’d like readers to make the case for their own church as the best ark to carry us through the time of exile.
Before you answer, here are some guidelines.
First, if you dispute the premise that a time of exile is upon us — and I know some of you do — don’t bother posting. It will only distract from the discussion I want to have.
Second, for the sake of this discussion, set aside questions of strict ecclesiology. A faithful Catholic may believe that his church is likely to do a very poor job of providing sustenance in this particular exile, but he will not leave the Catholic Church because he believes that it is truly the Church founded by Christ. Likewise with Orthodox Christians and their church. Likewise with other churches. Set that question aside for the sake of this thought experiment.
Third, I would like your answer to focus, as Trueman does, on the positive aspects of your church’s doctrine and practice, related to the goal of holding onto a distinct and countercultural orthodox Christian identity through the exile, and passing it on to the next generation. You will have to implicitly, and perhaps explicitly, criticize other churches, but please keep it brief, light and charitable. Be constructive.
(I’m sorry to have to put all these qualifications on it, but you can easily imagine how quickly things could go wrong, given the combustibility of this topic. I’m going to police these comments with special attention, to keep the discussion from going off the rails. One more thing: if you believe that the emerging dispensation in America is good for your kind of Christianity, I respect your opinion, but this conversation really isn’t for you to participate in. In fact, if you are a liberal Christian, you might finally feel as if you are coming in from exile. Again, I respect that sentiment, but that means you aren’t really the person I want offering an opinion here.)
Here’s my short case for why Orthodox Christianity is the place where small-o orthodox American Christians can best take shelter to live out the exile:
Orthodoxy is old. Very old. Its liturgies and devotional practices have come down through centuries of persecution and exile, first under the Islamic yoke, then under the Communist yoke. It is built for endurance.
It’s very hard to change Orthodoxy. That profound conservatism (= resistant to change, not necessarily politically conservatism) offers an incredibly strong bulwark against the Zeitgeist. And it is, of course, “orthodox” in the general theological and sociological sense I mean for purposes of this discussion: it is not going to compromise on the key issues separating traditional Christians from modern ones. Catholicism has the Magisterium and the Catechism, which are doctrinal rocks, but in my experience, so many American Catholics don’t submit their consciences to them. In practice, many US Catholic churches are just as Protestant as the Episcopalians down the street. In truth, I’m sure many Orthodox do not accept the hard teachings of the Orthodox Church any more than American Catholics do the hard teachings of the Catholic Church. But so far, at least, they pretty much keep their dissent to themselves. You don’t feel that the Orthodox parish is a battleground. At least I never have. It’s fantastic to have the solid rock of doctrine, but Rome is a long way off, and when the local church disregards it, it can undermine your confidence profoundly, over time.
Most importantly, Orthodoxy teaches and lives a counterculturalism that runs radically counter to modern American life. Orthodoxy is ascetic, meaning that the Orthodox Church always keeps front to mind the truth that the Christian life requires fighting the passions, and disciplining the body. We feast, and we feast with joy — but we also fast. The faith is not an intellectual thing alone — for all its great intellectual strengths, its cerebral nature is a weakness of Reformed Christianity — but involves submitting the entire body, and the rhythms of daily and weekly life, to prayer and fasting, both individually and communal. It does not preach that the body and its desires are evil — it would be heretical if it did — but it does preach that we must control our passions, or they will control us. This is strong medicine in contemporary America.
Orthodoxy preaches the Resurrection — but it also preaches the Cross. If you are Orthodox, you expect to suffer, but you know that suffering isn’t the last word. The rigorous and profound experience of Great Lent teaches you that our present sorrows and deprivations are only a prelude to the joy of the Resurrection, and that we must embrace our difficulties as severe mercies, as a means of grace.
Orthodoxy is demanding. Liturgies are long. Fasts are rigorous. Depending on which Orthodox church you’re affiliated with, you are expected to go to Saturday night vespers if you want to go to communion on Sunday morning. These things are hard to get used to, but once you do, you understand the wisdom of it all. The faith gets into your body, into your bones. Christianity becomes something that involves the whole person, not just the mind. A demanding religion is one that requires a lot of investment, but that means it’s stronger. More than any other form of Christianity you can find in America, with the possible exceptions of the Mormons and the Amish, Orthodoxy is a way of life.
When I hear and read people talking about what Catholic life in the US was like before the Second Vatican Council, it reminds me of Orthodoxy. To live and worship as an Orthodox Christian is to become intimately aware of how Protestantized US Catholic life is. I say that not to criticize, necessarily, but only to say that the same dynamics of thought and worship that have led so much of American Protestantism to dissipate in the face of secularization can be seen within mainstream American Catholic parishes. Thirty years from now, I think that the Catholic parishes that are strong will be those whose devotional lives look more like Orthodoxy, and more like the preconciliar Catholic Church.
Anyway, Orthodoxy is not just what you do on Sunday. It cannot be, and still be Orthodoxy. That is the point.
After eight years of living this life, I find the resilience it builds into you to be astonishing. And because Orthodox spirituality compels you always to search your conscience and to repent, I find that it has forced me to do some pretty painful, at times, growing in the spirit. It is possible, of course, to be self-satisfied as an Orthodox Christian, but to do so requires you to fight hard against the spiritual currents within the Church — which, I underscore, is less an institution and more of a Way.
Orthodoxy is weird. Incredibly weird by American standards. This is a strength, I find. If you’re Orthodox, you’re never going to really fit in to American Christian practice. You will always know who you are.
On the other hand, Orthodoxy is institutionally weak in this country. There are very few of us, and our churches are, for now, few and far between. Not all Orthodox churches are, well, orthodox. It is, sadly, too easy to find Orthodox parishes that are grim, closed-off ethnic clubs. It is too easy to find Orthodox parishes that are basically Mainline Protestantism with food festivals. No church is perfect, and never will be. My hope, though, is that in the time of exile, many American Christians will be drawn to the steady, faithful witness of Orthodox Christianity, and unite themselves to it, and strengthen the Orthodox Church.
That’s my positive case for why Orthodoxy is the best home for small-o orthodox Christians in American exile. What’s yours for your church? Remember the rules bounding this discussion.
UPDATE: I was just writing about this discussion with a Southern Baptist friend, and it occurs to me that while I’ve made the best case I can for Orthodoxy, I think that Catholicism is actually the church most likely to make it through what is to come. Why? Aside from its theological breadth and ecclesiology, Catholicism is in the best position to hold its ground because it has the numbers on the ground, and the most institutional depth and breadth in this country. And it has universities and monasteries to a degree we Orthodox Americans can only dream of.
Again, we aren’t talking about which church teaches the truth, or the most complete version of the truth; that’s a different question. For the sake of this thought experiment, we are talking about which church has the resources (theological, sociological, institutional, etc.) to endure, and why.
It’s a good question for the sociology of religion, period. It seems to me that generally, a religion that’s too rigid runs the risk of breaking over the passage of time, but one that is too flexible runs the risk of disintegrating.
In any case, lest there be any doubt, I strongly believe that small-o orthodox Christians and our fellow travelers in other faiths have to stand together, come what may.
UPDATE.2: You’ve got to read the comments. This is one of the best threads ever. Here’s a great example of what’s below, from Charles Featherstone:
My two cents — as an ELCA Lutheran who has been rejected for ordination — are that both Catholicism and Orthodoxy present the best vessels for christians and christian communities to not just survive in exile, but also thrive. Both churches have long institutional histories separate from the states they have found themselves in, plus Orthodoxy actually knows how to survive in conditions of opposition and oppression.
Regardless, those churches and confessions to intertwined with the state — and that includes almost all flavors of protestantism, including the Reformed — are going to find the going difficult once the state no longer becomes terribly cooperative. Protestantism is used to ruling, grew up ruling. Protestantism doesn’t know how not to rule, or how not to fight for rule. (The same could be said of Catholicism, but the Catholic experience is far broader, and much deeper.)
Accepting exile will be difficult. Let me suggest something — exile is God’s judgement on the church. Consider the twin forces of modernity and enlightenment to be Assyria and Babylon (using the metaphor of Israel’s downfall from the Deuteronomistic history and Chronicles). Judgement is better than punishment, and it’s a more faithful biblical language.
What are we being judged for? Well, what was Israel judged for? Overtly, it’s idolatry, its worshiping of other gods alongside or instead of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But also Israel was judged for its faith in own power (beginning with 1 Samuel 8), its own ability to protect itself, its rejection of God as Israel’s sole savior (as in Exodus 14). Israel sought refuge in its army — an army God told Israel it should not have. We as church sought refuge and defense in political power, in social power, in the nation-state itself.
But the prophets, some of whom saw the very collapse of the state itself (Isaiah, Jeremiah), also condemned Israel’s failure to care for the poor, the outcast, the defenseless, the weak.
We have been judged. We are suffering the fate of judgement. Some will carted off to Assyria and never heard from again. Some carted off to Babylon to sing songs for their captors and build a city in exile. Jerusalem will be destroyed. In fact, defending Jerusalem itself is pointless (Jeremiah).
But with the judgement of God always comes the promise of redemption. Maybe not us, and maybe not our children, and maybe not theirs, but God will redeem a remnant. Because God is faithful when we are not. Remember, Abraham believed in promises he would never see fulfilled, and that trust was his righteousness. We may likely not see our promised redemption. But it will come. The people of God will be redeemed, and just as Israel was saved from Egypt by a miraculous work of God, our redemption will come as a miracle. (Remember, Babylon was undone by Persia, and Isaiah refers to Cyrus the king of Persia as “the anointed one” — HaMeshih. Remember that the Tanakh ends with the words of Cyrus, commanding the rebuilding of the temple.)
And so, as we go into exile, we remember that we are to pray for the wellbeing of the city we find ourselves in, we or to build and beget and plant. It may be a very long exile, but God’s faithfulness is longer.
The church which remembers that this is our story, and tells the story over and over and over again (in worship, at the table), and believes it, will be the church that will survive. The church the remembers salvation comes about through resurrection will survive.
The church that wants a quick end to exile, or some kind of accommodation, will not. The church that seeks respectability, power, and influence, that fears suffering (largely by making it too cheap), will not survive.
We are the people of God. The church that remembers whose it is will survive. The church that is confused about that will not.